Egypt and the Arab Election Season

Egypt's election commission has just announced that it will not be releasing official results from the first round of elections until tomorrow.  The early signs suggest high turnout, and a very strong performance by the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party. Don't forget that thus far we only have partial results.  Closely contested individual seats will go to a run-off election next week. It will take longer to calculate the allocation of the 2/3 of seats for lists. And the vote to date was only the first of three rounds, and the final results could change dramatically in the second and third rounds of voting. Few Egyptians will forget that in the last somewhat free Parliamentary election in 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood's strong showing in the first round prompted the Mubarak regime to dramatically escalate its repression and fraud to save the NDP in the second and third rounds.

While we wait for all that to unfold, three other things for you to read:

First, Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations and I have just published an oped in the International Herald Tribune/New York Times calling on the United States to significantly increase its public pressure on the SCAF to implement a rapid transition to civilian rule; end practices such as emergency law, military trials for civilians, and escalating censorship of media and repression of protests; and hold those responsible for last week's violence against protestors accountable:

Egyptians lined up this week to vote in the first Parliamentary elections since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. The high turnout in a peaceful, orderly election contrasted sharply with the violence and chaos of the previous week, when hundreds of thousands returned to Tahrir Square after security forces killed at least 42 people and left 3,000 injured. But Washington should not be fooled by the peace that has returned to Egyptian streets. Even successful elections can not erase months of political mismanagement by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (S.C.A.F.) or the bloodshed committed under its auspices.

The U.S. State Department condemned the violence in Tahrir, and has called on the S.C.A.F. to transfer power to civilians as soon as possible. That is a good start, but is not enough. Egypt’s military rulers clearly believe that they have survived the political crisis, and have resisted calls for a more fundamental political change. The generals may prevail in the short term, as the numbers in Tahrir dwindle and Egyptians turn their attention back to the elections and political squabbles.

Still, the violence last week demonstrates that the S.C.A.F.’s leadership has created the conditions under which even small problems and challenges can spark massive instability. And it has shown that Washington’s present approach to Egypt, which has placed a premium on private diplomacy at the expense of public pressure, must change.

Overall, the Obama administration has done better with Egypt than most critics recognize. It has sought to shape the generals’ behavior by praising them in public while quietly pushing them from behind the scenes. This approach has sometimes worked, but it has lowered America’s status in the eyes of many Egyptians. Few Egyptians (or Americans) know what motivates U.S. policy toward Egypt or what it has done. Most revolutionaries assume that Obama is conspiring with the generals against them.

Until this week, arguments could be made either way on the balance between private influence and public pressure. Yet the unacceptable, systematic violence in Tahrir Square and the ratcheting repression across the country against protesters, journalists and foreigners changes that equation. The U.S. was virtually silent as dozens of Egyptians died and tons of U.S.-made tear gas bombarded Tahrir Square. Only after a few days did it muster a demand for restraint on both sides — which caused outrage among peaceful protesters — and a call for free and fair elections. Washington has toughened its language in recent days, including a White House statement calling on the S.C.A.F. to transfer power to a civilian government “as soon as possible.” But few Egyptians even noticed.

Read the rest here.  I would add only that the White House statement clearly did get the attention of the SCAF, which has responded quite sharply and negatively to the unprecedented public criticism. That's good.  Now that Washington has their attention, it should press them on what really matters. 

I would also add that the U.S. has done very well thus far to not panic in the face of likely Muslim Brotherhood success in the election, just as it has in Tunisia and Morocco.  It will be harder and harder to maintain that poise over the next few weeks, as Egyptian liberals, Israel, and many in the U.S. begin to freak out.  But it's important that it keep its cool, accepting the results of a free and fair election while also voicing its own clear expectations about the importance of the Islamist forces demonstrating their commitment to democratic rules, cooperation and tolerance.  

Second, the Project on Middle East Political Science has just released its seventh briefing on the Arab uprisings, this one titled "Election Season."   My introduction begins:

On Monday, November 28, Egyptians went to the polls for the first round of parliamentary elections. Those elections are perhaps the most momentous of a recent wave of Arab elections. Tunisia’s election on October 25 went almost unbelievably well. Oman’s went almost entirely unnoticed. Morocco’s played their assigned role. The announcement that Yemen would hold presidential elections in February has thus far been met mostly with disbelief. Elections may be on the horizon in Kuwait, after the resignation of its government, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has announced May 4, 2012 as the date for elections in the West Bank and Gaza. It’s election season in the Middle East.  But are elections the right way forward for these countries in transition? Will they change anything?

The Briefing collects great Middle East Channel articles on Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Kuwait, Jordan and Oman, along with an original introductory essay by me.  It's great for use in classes or just to catch up on the context for the rush of events.  Download it for free here!

Finally, I have a lead story in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine discussing the ideas of the Arab uprisings, focusing on the debates and discussion among Arab intellectuals and political activists rather than on Western narratives.   I argue that

while the Arab uprisings generated a marvelous range of innovative tactics (uploading mobile-camera videos to social media like Facebook and Twitter, seizing and holding public squares), they did not introduce any particularly new ideas. The relentless critique of the status quo, the generational desire for political change, the yearning for democratic freedoms, the intense pan-Arab identification -- these had all been in circulation for more than a decade. What changed with the fall of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia was the recognition that even the worst tyrants could be toppled. It shattered the wall of fear. That is why hundreds of thousands of Egyptians came into the streets on Jan. 25. It's why protests broke out in Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, and Jordan. It's why Syrians and Libyans took unfathomable personal risks to rise up against seemingly untouchable despots despite the near certainty of arrest, torture, murder, and reprisals against their families.

Read the rest here

And now, back to scouring Twitter for unreliable second hand reports of partial election returns from Egyptian precincts. 

The Middle East Channel

FP's Middle East Thinkers

The FP Top 100 Global Thinkers List -- or as I like to call it, the "Blake Hounshell makes 100 Friends and Loses a Few Thousand Who Secretly Think They Should Have Been On It List" -- hit the stands today. As you'd expect, given this year's astonishing events, the Middle East features prominently. My contribution was an article, The Big Think Behind the Arab Spring, which reviewed of some of the key ideas, thinkers, and trends which contributed to the Arab uprisings. I tried to focus on what Arab intellectuals and writers have said about their own revolutions, not on what we in the West have written about them. I can't blame Blake for that one. 

On the list itself, you'll find profiles of:

  • Alaa Al-Aswany, the Egyptian novelist who laid bare his country's deteriorating public culture; we can't wait for his next book
  • Mohamed el-Baradei, the Nobel Laureate who took the reins of the National Association for Change to challenge Hosni Mubarak; he may have missed his moment to lead Egypt, but he helped make January 25 possible
  • Wael Ghonim, the once-anonymous administrator of the We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page whose dramatic appearance in Tahrir Square restored the spirit of the revolution
  • Ali Ferzat, the Syrian cartoonist whose savage renditions helped puncture the Assad regime's cult of personality and paid a heavy price
  • Razan Zaitoune, the Syrian human rights activist who helped expose the brutal facts of repression
  • Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia's Ennahda Movement who oversaw its astonishing electoral rebirth and has worked to reassure both Tunisians and the West of his party's commitment to democracy and moderation
  • Khairat el-Shater, the power behind the throne in Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood who has emerged from prison to become a key player in shaping its uncertain political future
  • Tawakkol Karman, the Nobel Laureate Yemeni activist who simply would not stop protesting against President Ali Abdullah Saleh
  • Wadah Khanfar, the former director of Al Jazeera who helped shape the narrative of protest and populism which defines the new Arab era
  • Manal al-Sharif, the Saudi women's right activist who really wanted to drive
  • Eman al-Najfan, a leading Saudi blogger pushing for reform
  • Fathi Terbil, the determined Libyan human rights activist
  • Ahmed Devotogulu and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the architects of Turkish foreign policy who seem to be doing something right
  • Sami Ben Gharbia, the Tunisian internet activist who has done such phenomenal work on transparency and played a key role in his country's revolution
  • Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, the President and Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority whose electoral mandates have long since expired, authority over half their territory lost, and peace negotiation strategy failed. Um, yeah.
  • Meir Dagan, the former director of the Mossad who has taken to pointing out the idiocy of an Israeli attack on Iran

Among those on the list who are not as obviously connected to the Middle East, I would especially point to Samantha Power, whose ideas about the urgency of preventing genocide and push for global norms against impunity have emerged as one of the defining principles of the new Arab order, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, who pursued the same ideas at the State Department and then emerged as a forceful public advocate. I would also include my old Williamstown friend Ethan Zuckerman, for his brilliant and innovative work pushing the limits of the social uses of the internet, including helping to create the Global Voices Online collective which included so many key figures in Arab social media.

There are obviously so many more who could have been selected. FP couldn't cover every country or every brilliant mind. If you're one of them, or you really think there's someone who should -- or should not -- have been included, let me repeat: blame @blakehounshell. 

Elbaradei for Presidency Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=123551066565#!/group.php?gid=123551066565&v=photos